Wenger pleads poverty before summit meeting

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The Independent Football

To those who recall when Highbury was synonymous with marble halls and deep-rooted old money, it was strange to see Arsène Wenger portraying himself as a Cinderella - although given that this is pantomime season his timing was perfect.

To those who recall when Highbury was synonymous with marble halls and deep-rooted old money, it was strange to see Arsène Wenger portraying himself as a Cinderella - although given that this is pantomime season his timing was perfect.

On Tuesday night, the Arsenal manager wondered why there seemed so little neutral support for his club since they had such slender resources compared to Chelsea and Manchester United. "I am surprised that more people are not behind us," he wrote in his programme notes. "We have so much less than Chelsea and Manchester United. We have 30 times less investment capacity than those teams."

Over at Chelsea's training ground at Harlington before the teams met in potentially the decisive fixture of the Premiership season, Jose Mourinho greeted this depiction of Highbury in poverty with the kind of haughty derision in which he specialises. "Was Reyes a Christmas present? Did they sign Henry on a free? Is Vieira on loan?"

Nevertheless, Wenger felt it was natural that the neutral should want an Arsenal victory. Chelsea under Roman Abramovich have the purchasing power of a multinational corporation; Arsenal, by comparison are a collection of wonderfully gifted artisans. Tomorrow's encounter at Highbury may be a last chance to rein in what is seen by some as the naked buying of the Premiership.

"I don't feel we are poor but if I ask you who has the biggest financial potential; Chelsea or Arsenal what would you say?" Wenger remarked. "That is all I wanted to say. We are in the financial bracket of a Tottenham or a Newcastle. If you analyse what we have spent over the last seven years you find it is less than many teams in Europe.

"When [Mourinho] talks about Patrick Vieira, we bought Vieira for US$5m (£3.5m) at that time [1996]. You cannot say that was a big investment. We bought Thierry Henry with the money we generated from the sale of Nicolas Anelka."

Wenger has been here before notably when winning the French Championnat with Monaco when faced with the overwhelming financial muscle of Marseilles and Paris St-Germain. Competing with Abramovich's Chelsea is difficult but not an insurmountable challenge. "Sometimes it forces you to be more creative," he said.

From the moment that Vieira was brought to London from Milan's reserves in September 1996 to become the fulcrum of Wenger's Arsenal, the Arsenal manager has been wonderfully creative. Indeed, when spending serious money, Wenger's record is somewhat indifferent. For around £10m Henry, who was unearthed when languishing as a right winger at Juventus, was remarkable value, but Sylvain Wiltord never justified a £13m transfer fee while the jury is still out on Jose Reyes, who cost a club record £17m.

Against Rosenborg in the Champions' League on Tuesday night, the Spaniard once more resembled the player Wenger thought he might be, although yesterday the Arsenal manager confessed: "I had wondered why he had lost so much belief, determination and conviction."

These are qualities that Vieira possesses in abundance and his suspension tomorrow leaves a gap in the Arsenal midfield that Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele can only exploit. Mathieu Flamini and Cesc Fabregas managed without their captain on Tuesday, but playing Chelsea is in a different order of difficulty entirely than facing a Norwegian side who managed to squeeze in a Champions' League match in between prolonged bouts of Christmas shopping. "I am very confident they can handle this but then again I have no choice," Wenger smiled. "But they are young men who are not easily impressed. They will not be overawed; they have less experience but they have no fear. Some young players do have fear before big occasions, but they are not inhibited."

Wenger, incidentally, thought that Vieira's suspension, for a fifth yellow card, came about because his captain "feels more responsibility because he is next to a 17-year-old [Fabregas], who he has to protect. He also has to defend a little bit more because he does not have Edu and Gilberto Silva as cover."

The great question enveloping their training complex at London Colney like a fog was whether Wenger would persist with Manuel Almunia as goalkeeper in a match which if lost could see his side eight points adrift of the richest club in the world. The indications are that Jens Lehmann will return, if for no other reason than Almunia resembles every defender's bad dream: a goalkeeper who cannot trust himself. Sol Campbell was notably less than effusive about the Spaniard before Arsenal played Rosenborg.

That Arsenal, having set new standards of footballing excellence, should have "strengthened" an already fallible goalkeeping department by bringing in someone not considered good enough to play for Celta Vigo, a club relegated from La Liga, says much about their finances and priorities. Neither Paul Robinson nor Chelsea's Carlo Cudicini, surely the best reserve keeper in Europe, would have had Wenger in such an apparent and atypical spasm of indecision.

The Arsenal manager and his counterpart at Manchester United are entirely different animals; Wenger remarked yesterday that "I am not a great believer in history" when analysing games, which Sir Alex Ferguson most assuredly is. However, they have both come to a similar conclusion about Chelsea: that the club's experience of not having won a championship in 50 years will tell when the business end of the season arrives in March.

In many respects they have no option but to say this, and comments in the same vein were made when Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest exploded from nowhere in 1977. However, yesterday Wenger pointed out that last season Chelsea, despite finishing second, had surrendered their title ambitions by Easter.

"Spirit at Arsenal is never a problem but the confidence recently was," said Wenger, who argued that this was a naturally evolving side compared to Chelsea's hurriedly constructed edifice. "We had a very young team and because of that we will do better in March than we do in December and in May we will be better than we were in March because this team can only improve."

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